LaRue v. LaRue, 15578

CourtSupreme Court of West Virginia
Citation172 W.Va. 158,304 S.E.2d 312
Decision Date25 May 1983
Docket NumberNo. 15578,15578
Parties, 41 A.L.R.4th 445 Betty J. LaRUE v. Walter F. LaRUE.

Syllabus by the Court

1. "Where decree of annulment or dissolution of marriage is awarded, or divorce is granted either from bed and board or from the bonds of matrimony, the court has power under section 11, Chapter 64, Code [1923] [now W.Va.Code, 48-2-15 & 21], to decree further concerning the estate of either or both of the parties acquired during marriage, as the court may deem expedient, including an equitable division thereof." Syllabus Point 1, Philips v. Philips, 106 W.Va. 105, 144 S.E. 875 (1928).

2. The doctrine of equitable distribution permits a spouse, who has made a material economic contribution toward the acquisition of property which is titled in the name of or under the control of the other spouse, to claim an equitable interest in such property in a proceeding seeking a divorce. Because these are economic contributions, the right to claim such equitable relief is not barred because the party seeking them may be found at fault in the divorce action itself.

3. In determining an appropriate amount for equitable distribution where there have been economic contributions made (other than homemaker services), it is necessary to consider the respective economic contributions made by both parties during the marriage as weighed against the net assets that are available at the time of the divorce. The term "net assets" does not include assets acquired by a party prior to the marriage, or obtained during the marriage by way of inheritance or gifts from third parties. In computing the value of any net asset, the indebtedness owed against such asset should ordinarily be deducted from its fair market value.

4. In an appropriate case, the court in calculating the amount of equitable distribution arising from economic contributions may take into account the value of gifts made to the spouse seeking equitable contribution by the other spouse.

5. Economic contributions are similar to property interests. A court may, in an appropriate case, transfer title to both real and personal property to satisfy an award for economic equitable distribution because such an interest falls within the purview of W.Va.Code, 48-2-21 (1969), which authorizes the transfer of property "in the possession, or under the control, or in the name, of the other ... as in other cases of chancery."

6. To the extent that Patterson v. Patterson, 167 W.Va. 1, 277 S.E.2d 709 (1981), absolutely forbids consideration of homemaker services in the equitable distribution of marital assets upon a divorce, it is overruled.

7. Equitable distribution for homemaker services is not limited to the giving of a possessory interest in real estate. A court may determine that a lump-sum monetary amount should be awarded. The concept of homemaker services is not to be measured by some mechanical formula, but instead rests on a showing that the homemaker has contributed to the economic well-being of the family unit through the performance of the myriad of household and child-rearing tasks which make up the term "homemaker services." In valuing this service, the length of the marriage is an important factor and consideration should be given to the quality of the services.

8. Fault is a factor to consider when valuing homemaker services even though it is not a factor where economic contributions have been made.

9. Just as in the economic contribution area, a court may consider the value of any gifts given to the homemaker spouse during the marriage by the other spouse. The value of homemaker services must also be considered in relation to the net assets available at the time of the divorce and in light of the alimony award. An award for equitable distribution based on homemaker services does not give rise to the right to have transfer made of the legal title to real estate.

10. A claim for equitable distribution based on either economic contributions or homemaker services must be specifically asserted in the divorce action. In the absence of such a claim, the court need not proceed to consider the issue.

11. Claims for equitable distribution may be settled and foreclosed by property settlement agreements fairly negotiated by the parties as in the case of other property settlement agreements.

12. The rights of equitable distribution do not alter our existing law with regard to alimony and child support.

13. Because equitable distribution based on economic contributions does not involve any substantial departure from our prior law which is contained in Patterson v. Patterson, 167 W.Va. 1, 277 S.E.2d 709 (1981), and related cases, it is available in pending cases where the issue is specifically asserted.

14. Equitable distribution based on homemaker services should be applied prospectively, that is, only to those cases filed after the date of this opinion. Since we have applied the homemaker principles to the present case, we will extend these principles to those cases presently on appeal to this Court where an equitable distribution claim for homemaker services has actually been presented in the lower court.

Martorella & Martorella and Majorie Martorella, Huntington, Susan P. Moser, Wheeling, for appellant.

Bailey, Byrum & Vieweg and George B. Vieweg, III, Wheeling, for appellee.

Marsha Levick, Judith I. Avner, Anne E. Simon, New York City, for amicus curiae--The National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund and the National Center on Women and Family Law.

MILLER, Justice:

In this appeal from a final divorce action, we are asked to recognize the doctrine of equitable distribution of marital property. The trial court essentially held that the wife was not entitled to her claim for the equitable distribution of the marital assets. We conclude that the trial court erred.

The parties were married in 1950, and their marriage was a traditional one in the sense that Mr. LaRue exclusively handled the family's financial affairs and Mrs. LaRue was mainly a homemaker. Their gross income in the last year of marriage, during which Mrs. LaRue did not work, was $43,000. Out of thirty years of marriage, Mrs. LaRue was employed only in the early years of the marriage, and her gross earnings over seven years totaled $51,000. Evidence was presented that Mr. LaRue encouraged his spouse to be a housewife and homemaker, and accordingly she raised two children, cared for the house and the comfort of her family, and entertained her husband's business associates.

A divorce was granted to the parties in March 1980, based on irreconcilable differences, following a period of eight to ten years of problems. The trial court found inequitable conduct on both sides, but concluded that Mr. LaRue's abusive conduct "far outweighed" that of his wife. As the parties' two children were grown, the divorce order awarded Mrs. LaRue only alimony and an allowance for health insurance. The divorce order did not provide for any distribution of the marital assets, and the parties were unable to agree on any division except as to some items of personal property. The appellant petitioned the circuit court to award her a one-half interest in all personal property owned by Mr. LaRue, an undivided one-half interest in all real estate owned by him, a conveyance to her of all real and personal property in the name of and under the control of Mr. LaRue, and a reservation for Mrs. LaRue of a dower interest in the real property owned by Mr. LaRue. Mrs. LaRue's petition was denied, on the grounds that she had failed to carry the burden of proving either that a contract existed that marital assets were to be equally owned, or that any of her earnings were invested in any property titled in Mr. LaRue's name. The court found no grounds to establish a constructive trust in favor of Mrs. LaRue.

Early in the marriage, the parties had owned a home located on East Cove Avenue in Wheeling. The home, which had been titled in both names jointly, was sold for approximately $15,000 in 1962, and the proceeds were reinvested in another home, located on Elm Crest Drive in Wheeling. Prior to January 1972, that home was owned in the name of Mrs. LaRue only. At that time, Mr. LaRue had Mrs. LaRue sign a deed transferring title to his name only. The appellant did not recall signing the deed, but stated that she frequently signed papers at her husband's request without knowing their nature. The deed was signed at about the time when the marriage began to deteriorate, but was not recorded until November 1979, after the parties separated. Prior to bringing her petition for a division of the marital property, Mrs. LaRue sued to set aside the transfer of the home, but lost because the trial court concluded that she was unable to show fraud or mistake in the transfer.


The concept of equitable distribution of marital property has achieved an almost universal acceptance in the divorce laws of the various states. It originated when courts applied their equitable powers to secure equitable rights for one spouse in property titled or held by the other spouse based on the claim that a resulting or constructive trust should be impressed on the property. The basis for such a claim was that the spouse seeking an interest in the property had made a substantial economic contribution toward the acquisition of the property. Consequently, under the principles of unjust enrichment, it would be unfair to permit the spouse with title or possession to keep the entire interest. This general rule is set out in 27B C.J.S. Divorce § 293:

"Where a wife has made a material contribution to the husband's acquisition of property during coverture, she acquires a special equity in the property so accumulated which equity entitles her, on divorce, to an award in satisfaction thereof; and it is not a necessary prerequisite that...

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